Is Facebook the Future of Search?

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Baking a tarte tatin seemed an ambitious task for a newbie cook, but with the inclement weather outside and an orchard's worth of ripe fruit and other requisite ingredients in the pantry, I decided to tempt fate. But, as is typical with my ventures in the kitchen, things quickly got out of hand. I was about to Google the solution to my cooking dilemma, until a response to a status update on my Facebook profile — which read "Bill is cooking tarte tatin" — pre-empted that move and caused a dramatic paradigm shift in my view of the Internet's utility.

Before I could search for a solution, the solution found me.

That brought to mind the brief history of search-engine domination. If we trace the roots of our Internet behavior back to the Net's wild-west days in the mid-to-late '90s, most of us were probably launching into cyberspace from a portal page like Yahoo's, or through Excite or Lycos (remember them?). And by the new millennium, search engines, especially Google, had become the place to begin and end our Internet days. Then came Generation Y and the social network. What began as a younger-user phenomenon quickly caught on with 25-to-34-year-olds and older, and now social networks are changing the way we use the Internet in our daily lives (if only businesses could find a way to make money off that traffic). Is it any surprise, then, that search engines are no longer the most popular sites in the U.S.? Those bragging rights now belong to social-networking sites like Facebook — sites that as of June 2006 surpassed search engines as the most popular category by market share of visits (Facebook is even more popular than porn).

Do social networks herald the end of search? I wouldn't go that far. What may be in danger, however, is the serendipitous nature of search — for example, the gratuitous queries that we type into Google while we're on hold with India, waiting for tech support to solve our issue du jour. But, now, when we have idle time, we don't go to Google anymore; we go to Facebook. And on Facebook, we don't have to seek information. Instead, information just comes to us.

I continue to use search engines, of course, to seek important information, but over the last several months I've noticed that more and more information is also being pushed at me by my new friends (since shamelessly soliciting Facebook friendships in a previous column, I now have more than 900 new friends) — new music from Daisy's playlist, what books Mel is reading, what movies made the top of James's list — whether I've requested it or not. Perhaps the nature of the pure search will evolve this way too. Perhaps Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, is onto something with the alpha release of his new Wikia search engine (currently the 400th most visited engine in the Hitwise directory of search engines in the U.S.), which combines the push of social networks with the pull of information search by allowing users to edit and monitor search results Wikipedia-style.

Back to my kitchen caper. As I explained to my wife that I had concocted a free-form rustic tart (read, one very messed-up tarte tatin), one of my new Facebook friends, Alex, who lives in France, seeing my Facebook baking status, sent me a message informing me that the cookbook How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman had the best tarte tatin recipe around, and that I could find it on page 700. In a sense, Alex's message summed up my vision for the future of search: I don't just want the information faster, I want it before I even ask for it.